By a 63.4 percent yes vote, residents of the Greater Johnstown School District voted 1,393 to 803 to approve a $37.87 million 2019-20 budget with a 14.6-percent tax levy increase Tuesday night.
Johnstown has been grappling with a fiscal crisis as the district attempts to fill a $4.3 million budget shortfall. Tuesday night's vote is the first of three approximately 15 percent tax levy increases the school district will need to put itself on a sustainable path to maintaining its high school, kindergarten and restoring the district's sports programs.
"This is the first hill of a steep mountain we have to climb," Superintendent Patricia Kilburn said as she wiped tears from her eyes.
For the second year in a row, Johnstown's budget has passed in its second try after its first budget proposal was defeated.
On May 21 Johnstown's first budget, carrying a 35-percent tax levy increase, received a 3-vote majority vote, 1,150 yes votes to 1,147 no votes, which was far less than the 60 percent supermajority needed to break the New York state property tax cap.
During Tuesday night's vote, Johnstown was able to present a 14.6-percent tax levy increase to voters that required a only simple majority to pass because the district had a much higher property tax cap than normal. The cap -- exactly 14.6 percent --was high because of debt service expenses from the district's recent $39 million capital project.
Kilburn said the school district administration is projecting a much lower property tax cap, likely in the 2 percent or less, range next year and the year after.
"I believe that by having, yet another, record turn out of voters, we're starting to see the community to own these circumstances, to become involved and to hold us accountability," Kilburn said. "I'm pleased by this yes vote, because we won't have to create more reductions.
To get the district's proposed tax levy increase below the tax cap, enabling a simple 51 percent majority approval, Johnstown cut 19 staff positions, nearly all funding for sports and extracurricular activities and spent $2.3 million of its unrestricted reserves, leaving the district with only $2.7 million left it can apply to emergency expenses next year.
he district still has $3.06 million in reserves restricted for specific purposes.
Kilburn said she wasn't sure why the budget received approval of 60 percent of the vote or better in its second attempt for the past two years.
"I think the Johnstown community has always cared about the district and its kids, but I think that when you're trying to understand such a significant change, it takes time. I think it speaks to the fact that for many people in our country and our state, paying taxes is a hard thing to do," she said.
Kilburn said the next task for supporters of maintaining Johnstown's traditional programming will be the fundraising event called "1,000 Citizens to Save Our Sports," set for Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. inside the Johnstown High School auditorium, also known as the Center for Performing Arts
The goal of the event is to raise $200,000. Supporters of restoring the district's athletic programs will need to raise $311,000 total to restore all sports.